The red satin corset of shame: what the contents of your bookshelf reveals about you

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Ever worried someone might open the top of your skull and take a look at your brain?

Not in an physical, ‘err, it’s all pink and membraney and looks a bit like a blushing cauliflower’ sort of way, but in a ‘hell, what kind of twisted weirdness is this? And what’s that horrible, many tentacled thing hiding in the corner that looks like it wants to eat me’ kind of way’?

What I mean is, would you be worried if someone could see your inner workings (again, not the pink squidgy ones)?

We all have our secrets. I’ve written here before about how good people are at acting normal and how great kids are at showing their inner weirdo – well, outer weirdo … Just total, 100% weirdo.

If all adults feel they have to hide parts of themselves in order to fit in with all the other adults hiding parts of themselves and trying to fit in, are there unexpected ways in which these hidden depths ooze out, exposing the red-satin-corset-of-shame below the buttoned-down collar of respectability?

Before you begin to imagine I have a garage filled with life-sized, fully automated Lego models of serial killers or a catalogued assortment of ear wax, body hair and nail clippings, may I reassure you that I’m talking about books here.

Now, some people’s bookshelves may be filled with sumptuous leather bound volumes of Dickens, Hemingway, Austen and Hardy. Those volumes may be well-thumbed and oft read.  The owners may love the Classics, enjoy bathing in the warm joy of words, the love of literary genius.

Or they may just be snobs who want to show off an intelligence they don’t possess, mirrors only ever reflecting, never absorbing these wonders of erudition.

I’m guessing, though, that your bookshelf is very much like mine – a jumble of papery friends you’ve accumulated over the years. As with human friends, they’ll be some you love, that you return to time and again, that give back more each time you return to them.

But, you may also have the book equivalent of a friend-who-shouldn’t-really-be-a-friend, some piece of rubbish you picked up years ago. Maybe you’re not quite sure where or how they came into your life, you keep meaning to shake them off but can’t quite muster the energy to finally throw them out. 

So maybe, your bookshelf is a little like opening up your head and rummaging through its contents. Maybe it’s a window into your psyche, a little hint at still water running deep, or that you’re just a bit of an odd ball with a fixation with manhole covers, beer mat collecting and edible invertebrates.

From my own bookshelf, you’d learn I have a fascination for the Tudor period, especially the life of its seamen (note the spelling please).

You’ll also find a smattering of local history and dialect books, and Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England by Emily Cockayne – a fascinating book about dirty Georgians.

There’s plenty of fiction, of course. Books I read as a kid through to modern YA, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman and, yes, some Classics – Dickens, Austen, Mary Shelley, George Elliott, Conana Doyle.

And beside the guides to fiction writing, the books to teach yourself crochet, knitting and gardening (because there’s surely nothing you can’t learn from books) there are some about fossils – and a lovely big picture book filled with skeletons.

So, imagine Sherlock Holmes was trying to work out my personality from the contents of my bookshelf, because let’s face it, that’s the kind of thing he’d do.

I’d be a maiden in some distress, probably with a large fortune and a good line in lace hankies and suspect male relations. From the contents of my shelves, Mr Holmes might learn a thing or two …

‘Our quarry has an erratic mind, Watson – do you see the jumble of tomes, one atop the other, seemingly without rhyme or reason. And the subject matter – from antiquity through to our own day? Surely a sign of derangement, a person who is at once juvenile and geriatric, with a dangerous preoccupation with the grimy underbelly of society, with darkness and with death.

‘Call a hansom cab at once. The game is afoot!’


What does the contents of your bookshelf reveal about you? Would your books on real crime surprise your Nan? Would your collection of French romantic poetry have your work colleagues passing out with shock?

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